"Good ideas get stopped at the U.S.-Canada border

by Jeffrey Shallit

Canada and the US share the longest undefended border in the world, and free trade ensures that workers and goods-laden trucks pass easily between the two countries. However, there's one thing that doesn't cross freely but should: ideas, especially about social policy. Misguided nationalism means good ideas often get stopped at the border.

Canadian ideas barely penetrate the US national consciousness because of "Not Invented Here" syndrome. Accustomed to a large number of domestic innovations, Americans find it hard to believe that anything worthwhile can originate outside their borders. All countries, not just Canada, are treated with the same indifference. The US is an equal opportunity ignorer.

On the Canadian side, however, the rejection is more pernicious. Coming from the two founding nations, British and French ideas penetrate easily into the Canadian mind. But American ideas originate south of the border, and are therefore viewed with suspicion. Sadly, this prejudice even extends to academia, where professors are, at least in theory, trained to evaluate ideas on their own merits. I once heard the head of the faculty association at a local university silence a professor who had raised a point by saying, "Your ideas are American. We think differently here."

Both countries have blinders on. And it's a shame, because both countries can learn from one another.

Take privacy, for example. In Canada, we have both federal and provincial privacy commissioners. The recently-passed bill C-6 will go a long way to ensuring privacy for Canadian consumers in electronic commerce. But the US lags far behind, with no national privacy legislation, nor any privacy commissioners empowered to enforce it.

Another area where the US can learn from Canada is how we've handled the issue of gays in the military. While US military officials warn darkly of morale problems and worsened "unit cohesion" if homosexuals are permitted to serve, and President Clinton's "don't ask, don't tell" policy has been an abject failure, in Canada the ban was successfully removed eight years ago.

Brigadier General Daniel Munro, the director general for personnel policy in the Canadian Forces, was quoted as saying, "[The evidence for deleterious effects of gays in the military] just wasn't there, I mean, you can't use the old cohesion and morale arguments just based on folklore. You have to be able to prove this stuff." If only US military officials could speak with such honesty!

But Canada can also learn from the US experience. Although the US is a major polluter, it also has been a leader in legal protection for the environment. Despite a lot of talk, Canada still has no endangered species act. Meanwhile, 340 species are at serious risk of extinction.

Another area where the US experience can be profitably adopted is in health care. Everyone knows that the Canadian health system is seriously broken: huge lines in emergency rooms, long waits to be seen by specialists, and patients crossing the border for care they can't get here. It seems obvious that allowing private health care to supplement the current public system would relieve some of the pressure and delays.

But this solution is heresy in Canada, where respected commentators can utter fatuous statements such as "The good thing about our medical system is that it's not American" (Dalton Camp in the Toronto Star) and nobody laughs.

This kind of posturing reminds me of small children arguing about whose father is stronger. There's a Berlin wall that causes both Canadians and Americans to evaluate ideas on their origin instead of their merits. Let's tear it down.